Not for Horrid Profs

Colin Burrow

  • Shakespeare's Language by Frank Kermode
    Allen Lane, 324 pp, £20.00, April 2000, ISBN 0 7139 9378 2

The Oxford English Dictionary cites more than 33,000 passages from Shakespeare to illustrate the sense of English words. About 1900 of its main entries have first citations from Shakespeare. Although these figures are certain to over-estimate the impact of Shakespeare on the language there is no doubt that his vocabulary of about 29,000 words left English greater in all ways than it was before. This was largely a result of his extraordinary willingness to make nouns verbs and verbs nouns, to add prefixes and suffixes, and use words previously undocumented.

Lexical innovations are only a small part of the impact of Shakespeare’s language, however. He tests his readers and audiences to think about all the different ways in which words can mean: the shaping forms of rhetoric, the energies of a colloquial phrase, the force of a gesture (when Coriolanus holds his mother by the hand, silent, there is a conscious trumping of the verbal by the gestural), and the intricate social pressures of a conversation. In reading and watching Shakespeare, it helps to think about who is speaking, and how and why; who they are speaking to, who is not speaking, and how other characters might be responding to what is being said, how the dramatist is using the language of theatre to structure his scenes and shape the effect of what is being said on the higher language of the plot. It also helps to think about what people onstage cannot quite say, either to themselves or to the other characters present, and what sorts of thing Shakespeare may not have quite been able to say, whether for reasons of political prudence (of which he had great store) or because it was not quite possible to say them within the mental world in which he operated. In different phases of Shakespeare’s career and in different sorts of scene each of these pressures has a different weight, and it takes great critical delicacy – of a kind which has much in common with that of a theatre director or a conductor – to determine exactly how they press against each other. Shakespeare also frequently melted strands of imagery together so that they are all but unpickable apart. This makes the whole venture of hearing or reading his language an endless process of balancing difficulties of interpretation against each other to arrive at a view of a scene or of a play that one knows may hold good only for the moment in which one is reading the play or seeing a production.

Shakespeare is, as Frank Kermode termed him in a lecture given to celebrate the poet’s 400th birthday in 1964, ‘patient’: he endures because his writing has ‘power to absorb our questions’ and has shown an extraordinary ability to adapt itself to the concerns of each age. But as well as being patient he is also volatile (and it may be that the volatility of Shakespeare’s language is the chief reason for his patience): one does not need a new age to dawn for one’s own sense of the pacing or conversational effect of a moment in Shakespeare to change. It can change as you reread or rethink, or as a result of one remark in a commentary or one peculiar inflection in a performance. So, to take a tiny example: when, in Much Ado about Nothing, Borachio reveals that Claudio has been tricked into believing Hero is unfaithful, Don Pedro asks: ‘Runs not this speech like iron through your blood?’ Iron has to be hot to melting-point before it ‘runs’, but cold steel can run you through. A sword is in the words, so too is a sudden rush of liquid heat brought about by anger and molten remorse. How the line works depends on a myriad of circumstances: the pace of performance, the extent to which a director or critic is willing to allow the scene to be drawn up short, the quick-wittedness of an audience.

From an early stage in Shakespearean criticism people have wondered how far Shakespeare was in control of what he wrote. Ben Jonson, who honoured Shakespeare’s memory ‘on this side idolatry’, felt that the fluency of his language should have been curbed a little more (‘would he had blotted a thousand’ was his notorious response to hearing Shakespeare praised for never having blotted a line). Samuel Johnson catches Shakespeare ‘entangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he struggles with it for a while, and if it continues stubborn, comprises it in words such as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled by those who have more leisure to bestow upon it.’ A more accommodating view of the fleetingness of his language was taken by Hilda Hulme in her great study of aspects of Shakespeare’s language left unrecorded in the OED:

double-meaning … is of special value to the dramatist as part of the never-again-ness of his language; reader and ‘auditor’ are kept alert and required to accept as part of the natural order of things that what a word can mean will change with the changing situations of the external world. And as Shakespeare contrives it, we have the impression that not the speaker only, but the language also, exerts some control over what is said.

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